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British wool: a tale of war, taxes and trade with Europe

An article about the history of the British wool trade

With all of the hubris going on around Britain’s future relationship with Europe post Brexit, one could be forgiven for forgetting that we have been trading with our European partners for hundreds of years.

The wool industry is one of the oldest examples of Britain’s trading relationship with Europe, way before the European Union came into being! The production of wool cloth for clothing and blankets really took off in medieval times when everyone from peasant farmers to landowners were involved in the industry, mainly raising sheep.

At the time, rather than producing woollen goods here, British wool was sold to mills in Flanders, present day Belgium, where some of the most skilled weavers worked in towns like Ypres, Bruges and Ghent.

Between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, wool became such a driving force behind the British economy that people started to count their wealth in terms of sheep.

To this day, the Lord Speaker in the house of Lords still sits on a large square cushion called the Woolsack, which was introduced in the fourteenth century to reflect the importance of the trade to England. Apparently, the cushion was re-stuffed in 1938 with wool sourced from Britain and some of the Common Wealth nations.

Several monarchs at the time, not shy of taking the opportunity to raise funds from others’ prosperity, started to levy taxes on wool, using the proceeds to fund military and political ends. Realising how reliant they had become on the wool taxes, Edward III even went to war with France in the Hundred Years War, partly in an attempt to protect the trade.

As is so often the case, the level of taxing become unsustainable – see the problems that retailers are experiencing with business rates for a present-day comparison – and the wool trade started to suffer.

Some of the highly skilled Flemish weavers fled to Britain seeking solace from the horrors of war and French rule, settling initially in Norfolk and Suffolk and then moving to the Cotswolds, the Yorkshire Dales and Cumberland. A nice historic example of highly skilled European workers being required in Britain!

All the while more wool cloth was being produced in England. By the fifteenth century, not only was enough wool cloth being produced in England to satisfy domestic consumption, but wool cloth was being exported abroad.

In a historic example of government interfering with the natural ebb and flow of commercial markets, a law was passed in the 1570’s to 1590’s decreeing that all Englishmen except nobles had to wear a woollen cap to church on Sundays. The idea being that it would support demand for wool.

The ensuing years saw the woollen industry in Britain move through a cycle of boom and eventual decline through to a present-day renaissance, more of which we will cover in future articles.

At Ambunti Warehouse, we have clearly stated our mission to support British manufacturing by sourcing our wool blankets from weavers located in the British Isles. We neither support nor abhor the Brexit process, rather live in the present, cognisant that whatever the outcome of the current negotiations, Britain and its trading partners need to continue trading.

While the wool used in our blankets mostly comes from the Commonwealth countries of Australia and New Zealand, the weaving is all done in Britain.

We have also undertaken to donate a proportion of our profits to fund a sustainable project in the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea, where the village called Ambunti is located. More about this to follow in our news section. We hope you have enjoyed this article and look forward to keeping you up to date with future posts.

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